Matching Books to Readers in a Balanced Literacy Program
Matching Books cover
The following excerpt is from
Chapter One of Matching Books to Readers
by Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell
Matching Books to Readers in a Balanced Literacy Program

Children arrive at school with varying experiences in the world of literacy. Some have heard many stories and noticed critical aspects of print; others are just beginning to realize that language is represented by print that can be read again and again. This wide range of preschool literacy learning means that teachers must meet children where they are, addressing each individual’s knowledge and experience. And this challenge does not diminish as children progress through school. In fact, the differences grow, so we are always in the position of matching books to readers.

Matching books to readers depends on three interrelated sets of understandings, all of which are critical to effective teaching:

  • Knowing the readers.
  • Knowing the texts.
  • Understanding the reading process.
In this book we will provide information that will help you know the texts that children read as part of an effective instructional program in literacy. But we must always consider these texts in relation to the readers and the processes they are learning.

Importance of Matching Books and Readers

Why is matching books to readers so important? The young children we teach are building the network of understandings that make up a reading process. Children develop successful processing strategies as they learn to read for meaning. When children are reading a book that they can read, they are able to use many different sources of information from the text in a smoothly operating system. While focusing on the meaning of the story, they might:

  • Make predictions about what will happen next.
  • Interpret characters and form opinions about their nature.
  • Notice language patterns that please them and/or language patterns that represent a new "style" that may challenge their understanding.
  • Notice a word that is unfamiliar or that they don’t see very often and solve it—that is, think about its meaning or how to pronounce it (often ignored in silent reading).
  • Return to the text to confirm information that is essential to understanding the rest of the text.
  • Connect the text to others they have read or to their own life experiences.
Texts in Relation to Readers

Terms like "hard" and "easy" are always relevant. "Hard" for whom? "Easy" for which readers? When we use those terms in reference to books, we are always thinking from the perspective of the readers. A book is easy or difficult only in terms of a particular reader or even a group of readers. So, when we know the readers, we can think of any text as "hard," "easy," or "just right." Each kind of text has important implications for the behavior of the reader and the potential to learn.

Hard Texts

Think about reading a text that is very difficult for you as an adult reader. It might be a legal document, a technical manual (such as the tax code), or a novel by an author with an unusual style completely unfamiliar to you. How would reading that difficult text limit your ability to bring what you know to the process of reading? Your understanding might be impaired; if you attempted to read it aloud you might even stumble over some words or use expressions in awkward ways. You might find yourself reading some sections over and over, as you attempt to make sense. You might even skip some words altogether because you are unsure of pronunciation, of meaning, or of both. If you have to skip too many words, you may become confused. Chances are, after a while you would not continue to read. You would simply discard the novel or seek the information in some other way.

In a sense, our beginning readers are exactly in the same position with the too-hard texts they encounter in school. If they are struggling, these young readers are unable to use what they know in efficient, strategic ways. In fact, forcing young readers to read too-hard texts has devastating results:

  • Children begin to think that reading is simply a matter of saying one individual word after another. Their reading may, in fact, sound like the laborious reading of a list of isolated words.
  • Children lose the meaning of the text and may conclude that reading doesn’t have to make sense.
  • Children find it difficult to bring their knowledge of language structure to the process and may not recognize larger units, such as phrases. They cannot anticipate the next word because they are unaware it should sound like language.
  • Children practice inappropriate reading behaviors, such as the laborious "sounding out" of words in a way that makes no sense.
  • Children become frustrated with reading and avoid it altogether.

Easy Texts

What about books that readers find easy? How do such books fit into a reading program? Easy reading is actually beneficial for young readers, just as it is for adults. Reading a book that is very easy for you requires less intensity and energy. Most of what you do is fully automatic. You read quickly and easily. You feel in control. You are probably in a very relaxed state, and you can simply enjoy the reading experience. You are able to enjoy faraway places—almost as though you are there. You can anticipate events in the text; you enjoy thinking about the plot and characters. You may become completely engaged, blocking out everything around you. You meet few problems in terms of words, and you understand the text with little effort. Many of us use this "easy reading" to while away the time in airports or to help us fall asleep at night.

Easy reading is also beneficial for children who are just learning to read. In the first place, it allows them to enjoy reading and to use what they know in a smoothly orchestrated system. With harder books, children may be reading text accurately but not processing it in a smooth, fluent way. With easy books, they are unhindered by the demands of reading because they automatically—or almost automatically—use the skills they control.

Easy books also allow children to focus on the meaning and enjoy humor or suspense. They can ask questions and find answers. They can think in a deeper way about aspects of text such as characters, settings, or plots. They may encounter challenging issues that offer a foundation for discussion after the reading.

Easy reading gives children "mileage" as readers and builds confidence. They process a great many words and build up rapid word recognition as well as fluency in processing. Easy reading frees them to attend to new aspects of print and thus engage in new learning. They can read for meaning and use language in an orchestrated way.

So, texts that are easy to read are appropriate for some aspects of literacy instruction. We recommend that in the classroom children have the opportunity to engage every day in a large amount of easy reading. But to help young readers learn more about how to read, we need more than easy reading.

"Just Right" Texts

Our purpose in literacy education is to help readers learn more—to nudge them beyond their current development and help them expand their skills. We want to support their efforts to stretch as readers—to successfully meet the challenges of more demanding texts.

To help young readers build an effective network of reading strategies, teachers must select texts that allow individuals to read for meaning, draw on the skills they already control, and expand their current processing strategies. In other words, the text used for learning "how to read" must have the right mixture of support and challenge.

The reader must be able to process or read the text well. That means

  • Using knowledge of what makes sense, sounds right, and looks right—simultaneously—in a smoothly operating process.
  • Knowing or solving most of the words quickly with a high level of accuracy (above 90 percent).
  • Reading at a good rate with phrasing and intonation (that is, putting words together in groups so they sound more like oral expression) but also slowing down occasionally to engage in successful problem solving (independently and/or supported by the teacher).
The texts you choose for new learning must both support and challenge your students because children—like adults—learn best when the task is well within their control. By matching books to readers, you make it possible even for young children to use their strengths and extend their reading process.

The text should be just demanding enough to enable the readers to work out problems or learn a new strategy. The goal is not just about learning new words and adding them to a reading vocabulary, although that will inevitably happen. It’s about the processing, the "working out," that helps readers learn the skills and strategies that will make them independent—strategies that they can apply again and again as they read other texts. The "just right" book provides the context for successful reading work and enables readers to strengthen their "processing power."

Readers in Relation to Texts

Meeting children where they are developmentally requires that we assess their understandings of print and the strategies they are beginning to use to make sense of print. As teachers of children in grades K–3 we encounter a wide range of readers, from those who are just beginning to learn about print to those who can read just about anything we give them.

As we observe children’s behavior we need to keep in mind a broad continuum of learning. As we accompany and guide children’s literacy development, we need to be ever-mindful of definitive characteristics and behaviors. The goal is to support children in using what they already know to get to what they do not yet know. That means knowing our learners and working "on the edge" of their learning. In Figure 1-1, we have described general characteristics of readers at five levels.

These categories are generally useful in helping us think about the broad characteristics of readers. No one child will exactly fit one of these categories, and children will evidence behaviors in more than one category.

This is the art of teaching: we observe and describe children’s precise reading behavior and, in so doing, build a working understanding of each child as a reader at a particular point in time. In this way, we can trace changes in behavior as children learn and grow and plan sensitive instruction that supports them every step of the way.

Books, Readers, and the Reading Process

The purpose of matching books to readers is to provide the right books—those that provide reading opportunities that will help children develop an effective reading process. Our goal for children is to help them develop the kind of processing system that makes it possible to learn a great deal more—a system that extends itself (Clay 1991). As indicated in Figure 1-1, "self-extending" readers use many different sources of information in an orchestrated way. A competent reader reads the words and does so with great accuracy, but processing a text involves much more.

Reading is a complex process that brings together a reader and a text. Competent readers bring everything they know to the process, including:

  • Language knowledge (an aural and reading vocabulary, the structure or syntax, and the subtle nuances of language and how it is interpreted).
  • Background knowledge (from life experiences that include both direct and vicarious learning through books, film, and television, etc.).
  • Literary experiences (the books and other print materials they have read throughout their history as readers). Readers are active, in that they are constantly accessing information from this experiential base, which they connect to the text at hand.
Moreover, a self-extending system means that you possess the strategies you need to learn from your reading. And you learn two kinds of information simultaneously. You gain the information or content of the reading material, and you learn more about the reading process itself—you extend the knowledge and skill of the reading simply by engaging in the act. Adults control a self-extending system; children develop the system. From the moment we hand a young reader a book, our teaching goal is to help the reader develop a self-extending system. Not surprisingly, independence and confidence are highly related to the development of such a system.

Knowledge of the reading process is a critical element in matching books to readers. This knowledge helps us examine texts from two perspectives: (1) we note the demands of the text on the reader; (2) we consider what the particular reader knows how to do with a text. With this information we can begin to make a match:

  • If we know the challenges in a text, and we understand the reading process, then we can think about what this particular text challenges readers to do.
  • If we know what readers control, and we understand the reading process, then we can also think about what they need to learn how to do next.
  • Finally, we can intervene and teach to support new learning while children are reading a text.
When we match books to readers, we become more effective teachers. A good match enables young readers to engage in the successful processing that builds the self-extending system—the network of understandings that all competent readers control.

Action Plan

Work with colleagues to explore text difficulty in relation to children’s diverse needs.

  1. Select a book that children at your grade level typically read.
  2. Using the same book, take running records on six different children.
  3. Bring the running records to a meeting with colleagues. Discuss the challenges in the book. It will be an easy text for some children, a "just right" text for other children, and a hard text for still others. Talk about text difficulty in relation to the six individual readers.
  4. Using the chart, Diversity in Literacy Behaviors, discuss what you have learned about each reader from the running records.
    • Which readers did you learn the most about?
    • What happened when the text was too hard? Or too easy?
  5. Talk, in general, about applying your knowledge of individual readers to the creation and use of a gradient of text.

Diversity in Literacy Behaviors
Emergent readers rely on language and meaning as they read simple texts with only one or two lines of print. They are just beginning to control early behaviors such as matching spoken words one by one with written words on the page, recognizing how print is arranged on pages, and moving left to right in reading. They are just figuring out what a word really is, how letters go together, and how letters are different from each other. They may know a few high-frequency words that can be used as anchors as they learn to focus their attention on specific aspects of print. As they read, they notice aspects of print such as first letters of words, and they begin to pay closer attention to letters and sounds.

Early readers have achieved control of early behaviors such as directionality and word-by-word matching. Their eyes are beginning to control the process of reading, so they do some of their reading without pointing. They have acquired a small core of high-frequency words that they can read and write, and they use these words to monitor their reading. They can read books with several lines of print, keeping the meaning in mind as they use some strategies to solve unfamiliar words. They have developed systems for learning words in reading and can use simple letter-sound relationships in coordination with their own sense of language. They consistently monitor their reading to make sure that it makes sense and sounds like language. Early readers use several sources of information to check on themselves.

Transitional readers have the early behaviors well under control. They can read texts with many lines of print. While they notice pictures and enjoy them, they do not need to rely heavily on illustrations as part of the reading process. They read fluently with some expression, using multiple sources of information while reading for meaning. They have a large core of frequently used words that they can recognize quickly and easily. They are working on how to solve more complex words through a range of word analysis techniques.

Self-extending readers use all sources of information flexibly in a smoothly orchestrated system. They can apply their strategies to reading texts that are much longer and more complex. They have a large core of high-frequency words and many other words that they can quickly and automatically recognize. Self-extending readers have developed systems for learning more about the process as they read so that they build skills simply by encountering many different kinds of texts with a variety of new words. Self-extending readers can analyze and make excellent attempts at new, multisyllable words. They are still building background knowledge and learning how to apply what they know to longer and more difficult texts.

Students who are advanced in reading have moved well beyond the early "learning to read" phases of literacy learning. They are still learning and developing their strategies while they have varied experiences in reading. Through using reading for many different purposes, they acquire important tools for learning. There is virtually no text that an advanced reader cannot "read," but using prior knowledge, sophisticated word-solving strategies, and understanding the nuances of a complex text are still under development.

Figure 1–1  Diversity in Literacy Behaviors

© 1999 by Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell

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